The language and literature of Langston Hughes (1902-1967) is a deeply inspiring, beautiful and honest collection of work, worthy of reverence and understanding. Best known for his ability to infuse his poetry and stories with the feeling of jazz and the language of African Americans, Hughes wrote primarily about racism, oppression and the fight for freedom. A key figure of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Hughes talked about the experiences of poor African Americans in his creative works, themes most evident in his iconic poem “Harlem” which was concerned about the effect of white oppression on the African-American experience.
African American Life in General
One of the core tenets of Hughes’ work centred around the hardships faced by African Americans living in the 1930s. He often wrote about the institutionalised racism that African Americans faced, compounded by the economic gap between whites and blacks. From the dehumanising effects of sharecropping to the forcible assimilation of African-American culture, Hughes captured the struggles of African-American life in the 1930s succinctly. He also sought to enlighten Americans about the general mistreatment and the second-class status afforded to African Americans. In some of his poems, Hughes even called for a revolution, where racism would be abolished.
Social and Cultural Issues
Hughes was unapologetic in his portrayal of labor and ethnic issues, as well as the cultural barriers that prevented social equality. He wrote not only about racism, but also about classism, sexism, religious intolerance and political corruption. Many of his poems and short stories focused on the social dynamics of the African- American family, especially concerning the issue of generational gap. Hughes sought to draw attention to the struggles of the African-American community in terms of educational and job opportunities.
Hughes was at the vanguard of the Harlem Renaissance, a period defined by black communities coming together in order to create art and literature that celebrated African-American culture and heritage. His work gave a collective voice to the entire African-American literary diaspora, providing a representation of the moral and cultural struggles of black people in the United States. From the use of vernacular English to create a distinct black voice in America’s literature, to the exploration of themes such as black solidarity, Hughes worked hard to make the African-American experience a topic of mainstream conversation.
Religion and Faith
Religion and faith were consistent themes in Hughes’ writing. He wrote about the power of faith to overcome the harsh conditions of unchecked poverty and racism. Hughes lended his voice to those who believed in the power of faith to improve their everyday lives by providing solace and comfort and offering answers to difficult questions. Hughes often used biblical imagery and allusions to create a spiritual connection with his readers and to illustrate the power of faith in overcoming adversity and injustice.
Self Reflection and Identity
In most of his works, Hughes explored topics such as identity, self-reflection and cultural assimilation. His poems often delved into the complexities of identity within the African-American community, unveiling what it meant to be “black” in a white dominated society. Hughes was preoccupied with the concepts of fitting in and standing up for what you believe in; in many of his poems, he expressed personal doubts and self-criticisms while also celebrating the unique attributes of being African American. These themes are especially highlighted in the poem, “I Too”, where Hughes expressed his hope for a more integrated, fair and just society where African Americans were free to be themselves and express their identity proudly.
The Power of Hope and Imagination
In all of his work, Hughes highlighted the power of hope and imagination in the African-American journey. From his dream of a future without racial discrimination to his depiction of the day-to-day hardships of an African-American neighborhood, Hughes expressed his faith in the idea of possibility. His words inspire those around them to continue striving for a better world, to remain hopeful in the face of injustice and to use their dreams and their determination to create a more equitable future for all.
The Working Class
Hughes wrote extensively about the working-class life of African Americans. His writing often focused on the difficult reality of menial jobs, poverty and segregation. Hughes blended elements of realism with affirmative and often optimistic tones, providing glimpses into the daily lives of working-class African Americans. Hughes wrote about the challenges of holding onto their dreams while also doing the necessary labor in order to make ends meet. His work went beyond simply documenting the struggles of the working class, portraying their dreams and aspirations with grace and wit.
Love and Romance
Some of Hughes’ most iconic works detail the joys, sorrows and complexities of love. In most of his poems, Hughes explored the nuances of love, particularly in terms of interracial relationships. In poems like “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Cross”, Hughes focused on the difficulties of identity and prejudice in the context of romantic relationships, at a time when such unions were seen as taboo. While exploring themes of joy and longing, Hughes also addressed the challenges of meaningful relationships in a society that condoned miscegenation and segregation.
Hughes was heavily influenced by the music of his generation, particularly jazz, blues and spirituals. This influence was evident in his works, as he experimented with free forms, short lines and syncopated rhythms. Hughes often used jazz language in his poems to capture the expression and emotion of the music. He also sought to contrast the sorrowful themes of his work with upbeat music, illustrating the African-American journey from oppression to freedom.
Freedom from Oppression
Hughes wrote passionately about the struggle to gain liberation and freedom from oppressive systems. His poems articulated the need of African Americans to be liberated from laws and customs that opposed them, often illustrated through the heightened imagery of the South. Hughes wrote of a future filled with possibilities, where African Americans could be free to live life to the fullest. The portrayals of agency and personal transformation in Hughes’ poems inspired his readers to take control of their lives and to fight for justice and equality.